Can you imagine what it would look like if the Jewish people took collective responsibility for creating a righteous and just society? If instead of a squabbling and loosely organized confederation of miniature camps, we had a truly representative Jewish leadership that held itself accountable to the people and to God? I confess that it is hard to imagine such a scenario, but that counterfactual reality is precisely what our parashah describes in chapter 4. Verse 13 begins, “If it is the whole community of Israel that has erred and the matter escapes the notice of the congregation, so that they do any of the things which by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt….” A ritual of expiation follows, with the elders laying hands on a bull at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and slaughtering it before the community.
I realize that killing cattle in front of a tent would not work so well in our day—our rituals of expiation play out in courtrooms and in the press. Still, we can appreciate the concept that the people and their leaders should not simply admit error and move on, but must act out a ritual so that the divine presence will not depart the camp. Let’s look at how these verses have been understood by Jewish readers, and then think of what would work in our own day. Continue reading